There’s no denying the impact of the image.
A morbidly obese woman struggles up a short flight of stairs, while in the forefront of the advertisement are three servings of french fries, growing from modest to mammoth.
“Portion sizes have grown, and so has obesity, which leads to many health problems,” reads the headline of an advertisement from New York City’s public Health Department.
Maureen Storey, president and CEO of the newly formed Alliance for Potato Research and Education, doesn’t mince her words while telling potato producers about the dangers of this sort of campaign at this winter’s Manitoba Potato Production Days.
“This,” she said wryly, “this is not where you want to be.”
In fact, Storey has seen this movie before. She came to the newly formed potato association following a successful stint at the American Beverage Association, where she saw first hand what can happen when a product is successfully demonized. In that case the target was soda pop, and the results should be chilling for the potato industry if french fries and potatoes are now in the sights of the health lobby, she says.
“Between 1988 and 2009 soft drink makers saw volumes decrease dramatically and they didn’t make that ground up with niche products like teas and energy drinks,” she said.
In that case, the cause of this business upset was what amounted to a full-frontal assault on the industry by everyone from research scientists to the media and government. While there’s no denying that the underlying claims have some truth to them — there is more obesity and diabetes than ever before, for example — Storey challenges the oversimplification of saying a single food product is responsible.
“That’s an awful lot to lay on a can of soda pop,” she said. “They’ve got fries in their sights too, and that’s not a happy thing to see on a billboard.”
In order to win back market share and be seen as good corporate citizens, soft drink makers were forced to take dramatic steps. They removed full-calorie soft drinks from schools, and made calorie labels more clear, including putting the calorie count right on the front of the bottle or can.
Storey doesn’t expect the struggle in the potato industry to be quite as protracted, since the underlying product is a more nutritionally accepted one than soft drinks. But she also cautions that there is plenty of evidence that other wholesome food products have taken it on the chin over the years, something that makes having a good scientific basis for claims very important.
In 1984, she points out, Time magazine ran an explosive cover suggesting eggs weren’t healthy and it’s only in the past couple of years that egg producers have seen the tide reverse.
“It took until 2011 for eggs to come back, for us to be told, ‘this is something we want you to eat,’” Storey says. “After 30 years eggs are back.”
Because scientific research takes time and money, it’s very important for food producers to fund ongoing work in this area. If you have to wait for several years for results that refute an initial claim, she points out, the narrative has already been long established in the minds of the media and public.
Storey says even the most tarnished brands can make a complete comeback after years, even decades, in dietary purgatory. Take almonds for example, where growers made a concerted effort to fund dietary research into their products.
“Nuts used to be known as little pellets of fat,” she said. “With research, there’s been a complete turnaround in how consumers and health professionals view them.”
Today, almonds are seen to lower blood cholesterol levels, be an excellent source of unsaturated fats, and are said to be high in fibre, protein, calcium, magnesium, potassium, vitamin E and antioxidants. They’re also thought to help prevent osteoporosis and regulate blood pressure.
“What the almond industry found was that, for every dollar they spent on research, they got back 125,000 pounds of market share in 15 months’ time,” Storey said. “There is a return on investment for health and nutrition research.”
That’s important because even non-french fried potatoes are beginning to come under attack, not least from a recent Harvard research paper claiming potatoes made people fatter faster than any other food. Storey expects that this research won’t stand the test of time, but says it’s going to be important to counter that storyline quickly.
In fact she says it’s already starting to bear ill results for the potato industry, as seen in the recent revision of USDA healthy eating guidelines, known colloquially as “My Plate,” which say potatoes are starchy vegetables and thus not “real” vegetables. With that up for further review in 2015, Storey says her organization has a clear goal in mind.
“In 2015, I want to see the return of potatoes to My Plate as a vegetable,” she said. “Not a starchy vegetable, a vegetable, because everyone knows potatoes are good for you.”